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Leafs host red-hot Blackhawks

by Adam Proteau / Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs’ opponent Friday is the superstar-studded Chicago Blackhawks – a.k.a. the NHL’s defending Stanley Cup champions, one of the most decorated, celebrated squads of the modern-day era, and, as winners of nine consecutive games, the league’s hottest team. And if the Hawks look like they’ve got an aura of confidence when they take to the ice at Air Canada Centre, that’s because they do, and they’ve done the work necessary to feel that way.

“They’ve got a swagger to themselves, and they’ve earned that with what they’ve done the last few years,” Leafs forward Shawn Matthias said of the Hawks, who moved into a tie for first place in the Western Conference after their 2-1 victory over Montreal Thursday. “They have every right to be as confident as they are, and to have that swagger. You definitely see it. They play with a lot of confidence, and if we’re going to beat them, we’re going to need a full 60 (minutes) and every single guy in this locker room going.”

“I think the biggest thing is they play real solid both ways,” added Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. “Their top guys are always real good on both sides of the puck, and they’re very dangerous offensively. They’ve found a way to be extremely consistent no matter who’s in their lineup. Every year there’s turnover, new guys come in, but their core is extremely strong and has been for a while. They’re a team that is a real good measuring stick when you go up against them, and you expect the best from a team like Chicago.

The Blackhawks employ arguably the deepest, most talented lineup on the planet, with impact players at every position. And even if star goalie Corey Crawford isn’t in net Friday – backup Scott Darling is expected to get the nod after Crawford stopped 39 of 40 shots against the Habs – Toronto will be in tough to end its losing streak that reached three games after a flat effort in a 3-1 loss to the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets Wednesday. The Buds haven’t looked right since the middle of their California road trip last week, and head coach Mike Babcock said the key to turning around their fortunes is to have a strong start; otherwise, the Leafs will be on their heels, the way Montreal was at the Bell Centre Thursday.

“We’ve got to start on time,” Babcock said. “We’ve got to be ready to go. To me, Chicago really got going in the first 10 minutes (Thursday), they had it on a string, and the game was over. Now, Montreal really came, and Crawford was great, and (the Habs) had the puck and they cycled, but they didn’t start on time. If we come out and watch (the Hawks) instead of playing, it can get ugly fast.”

Another mountainous task for Toronto will be to contain Hawks captain Jonathan Toews, arguably the best all-around player alive today. Phaneuf has faced Toews a number of times – especially when he was a member of the Calgary Flames – and believes the veteran centre’s consistency is what sets him apart, even among the game’s top leaders.

“He’s one of the best at playing on both sides of the puck,” Phaneuf said of the 27-year-old Toews, who scored his 17th goal of the season in Chicago’s win Thursday. “He’s won, he’s won a lot, and with that there’s experience, and I think he shows that every night. He competes night in and night out…(y)ear after year, he brings it game after game. I think he’s developed into one of the top guys in the league for a reason.”

The Leafs will head to Boston after the game for the second night of back-to-back games Saturday. And while nobody in Toronto’s room is looking past Chicago for a second, Buds players also know the Hawks know they’re a target and thus are always prepared for an opponent’s best effort.

“We’re going to have to be ready, and I think they’re used to that,” Matthias said. “You can’t have an off-night against this club. We’ve had some difficulties the last couple games, and to play this team now, it’s a good test for our club, and it’s a good way to get our confidence back.”

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